SEOUL, Aug. 5 (UPI) -- South Korea's state spy agency is under fire for illegally wiretapping private telephone calls of major politicians and businessmen.
The wiretapping scandal, which involves the country's top business conglomerate, news media and former presidents, is expected to deliver another blow to President Roh Moo-hyun who has led a political reform campaign after succeeding Kim Dae-jung.
The scandal also spread fears among politicians, businessmen and journalists that their conversations may be bugged because the spy agency also wiretapped mobile phone calls.
The National Intelligence Service apologized publicly Friday for illegally wiretapping telephone calls until early 2002. it previously claimed no illegal wiretapping under the Kim government from late 1998 to early 2003.
"I am here to confess the fact that we confirmed illegal wiretapping and seek forgiveness," NIS chief Kim Seung-kyu said in a statement, admitting the intelligence agency's illegal bugging practices in the past.
"The agency was found to have conducted wiretapping until March 2002," he said in an apology broadcast live across the country. "Forgive us for the past illegal bugging. We are now determined to start from scratch and write a new history of NIS," said Kim, who took the intelligence chief job last month after serving as justice minister.
"I am convinced that without an honest confession, the NIS cannot get rid of its dark past in order to be born again and fulfill its original mission," he said.
But Kim said there had been no illicit wiretapping under the current government of Roh who was inaugurated in early 2003.
"Now we don't need to conduct illegal bugging, and we don't have the intention of doing so," Kim said, adding his agency is ready to face an investigation.
The intelligence chief said the agency conducted a special in-house inquiry to find out the agency's illegal bugging practices after the scandal erupted late last month when local television network MBC reported a taped 1997 conversation of an alleged payment by the Samsung Group to presidential candidates, including Kim Dae-jung.
A former NIS official who headed a wiretapping team was arrested Thursday for leaking the taped conversation between Hong Seok-hyun, a brother-in-law of Samsung Group chief Lee Kun-hee, and a top official of the conglomerate over slush funds.
The former NIS wiretapping chief attempted suicide by stabbing himself last week after releasing a written statement in which he admitted his wiretapping operation.
The conversation sparked suspicions that Hong, then publisher of Samsung-affiliated daily, the JoongAng Ilbo, acted as a courier for the country's biggest business group to dole out slush funds to presidential candidates in late 1997.
Hong, who was named South Korea's ambassador to the United States in February, resigned from the post.
Samsung also offered a public apology for the scandal. Prosecutors plan to summon Samsung's No. 2 official Lee Hak-soo to investigate the group's involvement in illegal political funds.
MBC disclosed the wiretap tape of a conversation intercepted and recorded by the spy agency on July 21. The MBC reporter who first broke the illegal wiretapping story is facing arrest. Prosecutors may punish the reporter for making the illegally obtained information pubic.
On Thursday, prosecutors raided the house of a former head of the spy agency and seized documents and computer disks believed to be related to the unlawful bugging. The move is believed to signal the expansion of the prosecution's investigation to include former and serving officials of the intelligence service.
"The wiretapping by the NIS is within the scope of our investigation. The prosecution will thoroughly investigate the alleged wiretapping," a prosecution official said.
Roh's office quickly moved to shield the leader from the bombshell scandal, dismissing allegation intelligence agencies are still illegally bugging conversations.
"I can assert that there is no illegal eavesdropping at least under the incumbent Roh Moo-hyun administration," Moon Jae-in, senior presidential secretary for civil petitions, said in a news briefing, adding Roh was not receiving information on politics from the intelligence agency.
Opposition parties stepped up pressure on the government to reveal the contents of the file, so far consisting of more than 270 audio cassette tapes, which recorded bugged conversations. If revealed, the so-called "X-file" is likely to shake the country's political and business circles.
The main opposition Grand National Party called for a special counsel to investigate the illegal wiretapping that is allegedly still under way.
"Every administration has said it does not wiretap and the incumbent government says there is no (illegal) bugging, but nobody believes it," said Rep. Kang Jae-sup, the GNP's floor leader.